Strong ASEAN relations depend on careful cooperation

Much has changed since the first meeting between US and ASEAN officials in 1977. But after 45 years of engagement, relations between the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States remain unstable. The war in Ukraine has provided a new impetus for the resumption of ASEAN-US relations in a pragmatic way.

Author: Kavi Chongkittavorn, Chulalongkorn University

Their leaders met in Washington for the ASEAN-US Special Summit in May 2022, and there was a sense of joy and panic. Since the Vietnam War, the United States’ position on Southeast Asia has been the subject of constant debate, particularly over US compatibility and reliability.

US presence in ASEAN is required.

A fact has emerged – the US needs a presence in the region, especially in terms of security and the economy. ASEAN leaders welcomed President Joe Biden’s invitation when it was first issued in October 2021.

ASEAN-US relations have been driven by their long-standing mutual security and economic interests. But the emergence of new powers, such as China, Russia and India, has made the high-level dialogue between ASEAN and the United States even more urgent. The confidence of ASEAN leaders in the role of the United States in the region has grown under Biden as he has promised to hold early meetings with his ASEAN counterparts.

… After six years of emptiness

At the Washington summit, Biden named a close ally, Johannes Abraham, as the new US ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat after a six-year hiatus. ASEAN welcomes the appointment of a senior official who has Biden’s ears.

It is important to note that China has not missed the last two dozen ASEAN-related summits since Beijing became a dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1992. Regular summit meetings have strengthened the ASEAN-China relationship and transformed it into one of the group’s most dynamic dialogue partnerships.

In 2021, China was promoted to the status of a comprehensive partnership. In this context, the United States took the opportunity to develop ASEAN-US relations into a comprehensive strategic partnership at a special summit in Washington in May. Australia also established a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN last year.

With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the United States is seeking to increase support for sanctions from ASEAN, which has become problematic due to differences among ASEAN members. The ASEAN-US Joint Vision Statement has proved difficult to establish a general position on the situation in Ukraine as the situation is still evolving.

The joint statement reiterated ASEAN’s call for an “immediate end to hostilities”. But the Biden administration wants an additional guarantee from ASEAN that it will not go against the ongoing sanctions regime as the war in Ukraine continues.

ASEAN also has other priorities in regional issues, including the Myanmar crisis, the South China Sea conflict, the development of cross-border resources in the Korean Peninsula and the Mekong sub-region. Excessive U.S. pressure on ASEAN to lean west could be reciprocated. The lessons learned from India’s response to joint US and European pressure should be effective. No ASEAN member would want to damage their long-standing relations with Russia and China. Singapore may be different – it may be different, but it may stand alone.

By early 2021, the Biden administration realized that in order to receive support and cooperation from ASEAN, it needed to be more realistic and flexible. The newly announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), part of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, is designed to accommodate both the United States and regional interests. Seven of the ten ASEAN members are among the 13 signatories who have expressed a desire to build closer economic cooperation with the United States and its allies. IPEF is still a work in progress and due to various existing perspectives and economic practices it will take time to discuss and debate on IPEF material.

In order to strengthen the new comprehensive strategic partnership, the United States should focus on ways to strengthen economic and security cooperation with ASEAN, which would enhance the centrality of ASEAN. It took almost a decade for the non-military bloc to take a leading role in US regional affairs under the Obama administration. From now on, Washington must demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with the ASEAN-initiated guidelines under its Indo-Pacific strategy.

ASEAN prioritizes four areas of cooperation under the Indo-Pacific ASEAN Outlook – maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation. The United States must be open when collaborating with ASEAN, as other Indo-Pacific frameworks have already promised to do the same. Any sign of a revival would damage US creditworthiness. Japan has already signed a joint statement with Outlook to coordinate its Indo-Pacific strategy.

This will allay ASEAN’s concerns about the informal grouping known as the Quad, comprising the United States, Australia, Japan and India. Joint cooperation between the United States and ASEAN on the Indo-Pacific Framework will strengthen ASEAN’s centrality and address regional challenges. One area that could be a pilot project is the Quad Vaccine Partnership, which plans to deliver one billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Over time, both sides could expand cooperation in the areas of climate, sustainable infrastructure, maritime issues, education, people-to-people contacts and economic engagement in Covid-19 and global health protection.

The Biden administration was wise not to use the summit to pit ASEAN against China and Russia, otherwise the United States would further undermine ASEAN-US relations and the balance of power in Southeast Asia. To advance the new comprehensive strategic partnership, both sides must now move forward with their bilateral agenda and focus on harnessing their combined strengths within the Indo-Pacific region.

Cavi Chunkitavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalankorn University, and a veteran journalist for regional affairs at the Bangkok Post.

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